Can’t it be me?

Glyn Maxwell

  • The Immortals by Amit Chaudhuri
    Picador, 407 pp, £16.99, March 2009, ISBN 978 0 330 45580 0

There’s nothing like a book about music to remind the reader of the silence. Nothing else insists so emphatically on what we are usually happy to forget: that, during the hours we read, our lives have gone quite still, and we are taking a stranger’s word for the world. A landscape, a face, a building, a painting, even a taste, an odour, an emotion: we will readily accept words for these, because we feel able to usher words into the space we’ve cleared for them. We are not resistant to descriptions of sound, from traffic to birds to sea-surf to tones of voice: we have rough ideas of all these things, and will gladly let a talented stranger mould them in the service of a story. We don’t even have a problem with being told that a stream of pop music or jazz or classical fills the background: we have our own playlist on hand to individuate such moments; the deep quiet recedes.

It is the presence in fiction of music that is at once beautiful and at the same time profoundly significant to the protagonist that floods the mind with silence. The reader comes to a standstill, but it is not so much the frustrating halt of confusion or fatigue, but the standstill of a traveller reaching a frontier. If it is in the gift of the writer to harness this power, then this terminus, this true north, far from being the point at which fiction fails or quits, can be as sublimely expressive of the human condition as any words the writer brings to our hospitable quiet.

Gabriel Conroy, in ‘The Dead’, suddenly hears singing from upstairs as he waits for his wife after the Misses Morkans’ dance:

Gabriel held up his hand for them to be silent. The song seemed to be in the old Irish tonality and the singer seemed uncertain both of his words and of his voice. The voice, made plaintive by distance and the singer’s hoarseness, faintly illuminated the cadence of the air with words expressing grief:

O, the rain falls on my heavy locks
And the dew wets my skin,
My babe lies cold …

Joyce doesn’t begin this episode with the lyrics, the surest way to get a tune going if words are all you have. He doesn’t need the right song to get the right effect; he needs only to shade in the sudden presence of a song. If anything, he drives us as far as possible from familiarity or recognition (the song ‘seemed’ to be in ‘the old Irish tonality’, the voice was ‘uncertain’ and illuminated ‘faintly’) and, for those who don’t recognise the air from the few words he gives, it’s two whole pages until we have the title, when Bartell D’Arcy, who was singing, says it’s called ‘The Lass of Aughrim’. Held back even longer is Gabriel’s dawning sense that the song means a great deal to his wife, Gretta, and longer still the essential truth, that Michael Furey, her dead first love, used to sing it to her. These layers of Gabriel’s unknowing are hardly different from our own (‘What about the song? Why does that make you cry?’ ‘And who was the person long ago?’), and at the end of the story, when Gabriel looks down at his sleeping wife, he stands at a soundless border to which music has brought him in his ignorance and helplessness, and to which Joyce has brought us in ours. Gretta Conroy, perhaps dreaming, and so inhabiting the one place where the dead can seem to be living, might as well be on the far side, and the famous end of the story simply shows the whole of the silent landscape, this side of the border and that.

The Immortals, a book about ancient music passing down through the generations, must cope with this silence: it’s there in the title itself. The greatest art, whether song or painting or novel or poem, would be more potently and no less accurately described as ‘unforgettable’ or ‘indestructible’, yet there has always been a preference for ‘immortal’, with its sonorous aura, its pompous whiff of the gods, an oaken door closing firmly on all that would follow. And this is precisely the problem for the three main characters in Amit Chaudhuri’s fifth novel. All lead largely happy and prosperous lives in late 20th-century Bombay, but all are haunted by the examples of their elders, by ideals of Hindustani classical music, shastriya sangeet; by legendary singers, flawless renditions of devotional bhajans, romantic ghazals, and all the mysterious machinery of fate by which some are chosen and some passed over. Perfection floats beyond them all as they learn, sing, teach, dine on terraces, fume in traffic and watch their city grow enormous. Their contemplation of greatness in music is never far from a recognition of mortality, as an enraptured inhalation gives way to the longest sigh.

According to the system of gharana, by which esoteric knowledge, craft and a particular style in music and dance are passed down through the family line – or, failing kindred ties, through a long and strict apprenticeship – Shyam Lal must labour in the shadow of his father, Ram, a singer and teacher who only two years after his death ‘was becoming a sort of myth’. Gradually Shyam steps into his father’s shoes as singer and teacher, and though his confidence never outruns a feeling of essential inadequacy in the face of the calling, he makes his peace with falling short. Mallika Sengupta has a voice so beautiful it makes people feel ‘transported, somehow, to an earlier, to a better time’, but her style is unfashionable and she waits in vain for a recording contract while settling, a little more each year, for the compensations of a comfortable marriage and a grand apartment. Her son, Nirmalya, lonely and intense, feels the piercing gaze of the venerable departed, but his desire to attain their mystical purity seems shorn of any spiritual dimension, leaving him little more to do than grow his hair long, play the sulky rebel and drift from India to England for enlightenment, a singular course if ever there was one.

None of the three seems to have any choice but to be defined by the music that runs in their veins. Chaudhuri introduces them, along with their loved ones and mourned ones, their bosses and servants, with a hazy unhurried circularity that is at first vexing but soon becomes enjoyable, like a long hot afternoon spent among friendly strangers telling stories about each other; and in nearly every case their relationship to the art of classical song is among the first things we learn. The book begins with the legendary singing voice of Shyam’s dead father: ‘Panditji was singing again, impatient, as if he were taking his mind off something else. But he grew quite immersed.’ This turns out to be a tape recording, but that isn’t made clear until Chaudhuri has planted the idea that Pandit Ram Lal’s voice still sings in the present tense, and that those who would journey upwards on that path still have, more than ever, to reckon with it. That the journey is necessarily upwards is never doubted for a moment by any of the mortals, but, throughout the novel, the author’s diplomatic narrative gently raises questions. A portrait of Ram Lal hangs in the drawing-room: ‘It was the face of – by common consensus in the family – a great man. The large forehead had been smeared with a tilak, as if someone had confused the portrait with a real person.’

‘In the family’, and only a ‘consensus’. Very early in the book Chaudhuri suggests that the much vaunted greatness is literally relative, and the implacable summoning to immortal honour represented by Ram Lal’s life is as much a generational burden as a musical one, a necessary – and necessarily unattainable – ideal foisted by the old on the young in the name of the dead. In fact, the more the patriarch’s greatness is alluded to, the more there begins to develop some of that queasiness one feels when confronted by tall statues or impressive mausoleums: that a combination of family pride and a healthy bank balance have distorted the nature of remembrance.

Thirty pages in, we discover that Ram Lal, ‘in spite of his great gifts, had not made an impact on Bombay; the appreciation of his gifts was left to a small circle of admirers. Outside of that circle, he was almost – not quite, but almost – a nobody.’ And tarnish is delicately applied to other portraits of ‘the great’ in the book, too. When Sumit Sen, a renowned old singer of Tagore songs, arrives by train from Calcutta to a rustle of excitement in Bombay’s Bengali community, he is met at the station not with garlands, but ‘at least with pleased, vindicated expressions’; and afterwards, ‘one could say’ – what a mournful middle-class qualifier! – that ‘the show was a success: the suburban hall was almost three-quarters full.’ Pandit Rasraj, an eminent singer approaching the end of the ‘relatively brief period’ when a classical musician’s ‘creative powers and his visibility coincide’, is described as entering the ‘second phase, of canonisation … it promised to be long.’

It falls to Shyam to organise an annual celebration of his father’s work, a gandharva sammelan, because ‘Ram Lal’s admirers had, towards the middle of his life, in an onrush of slightly belated, sentimental gratitude, given him the title “gandharva”.’ A gandharva is a ‘heavenly singer’, one who is said to visit Earth from the realms of the gods in order to bring the sound of their existence to our ears. But Shyam feels pressure more from below than above, as he works flat out to beg funds, sell advertising, hire performers and a venue. By the end of the book the annual festival is struggling to survive. ‘Not this year,’ Mrs Sengupta says when Ram Lal’s family asks her to participate, her ambitions so long faded that when the record company executive who has it in his power to kick-start her career suddenly dies, ‘it almost seemed to Mallika Sengupta that a burden had lifted.’ Her ardent son, Nirmalya, who has all along said indignantly of her teacher Shyam Lal, ‘what exactly is he doing for you that he isn’t for all the others?’, fulminates at ‘the pointlessness of his mother’s career as a singer’ and flees to Spinoza, Santayana and Yeats’s ‘Byzantium’ (westward again) to dwell on the mysteries of art and genius.

‘Music is leaving the house of the ustads, the maestros,’ an elderly friend of Ram Lal intones: ‘But, at this point in his life,’ Shyam ‘didn’t care exactly where music was located. And he had no pressing worries about whether the splendid but little-known inheritance his father had created would peter out … The gharana was the least of his worries.’ Gradually it becomes clear that the unattainable ancient music is no more the subject of the novel than Bombay is: it plays throughout like the white space beneath the print, or the silence that meets us when we try to hear perfection.

The Immortals is, among other things, a novel about disappointment: everyone comes up short. Kamala, the young daughter of one of Mrs Sengupta’s teachers, is fancifully compared to the popular singer Lata Mangeshkar, but as Chaudhuri tells us with unusual terseness, she is ‘just another girl being asked to live up to her father’s dreams’. One of the few characters without any musical pretensions at all, the teenage son of Mr Sengupta’s English expatriate boss, is ‘a disappointment to his parents’, and is treated ‘like a semi-literate’. Even the Senguptas’ much loved only child, who was very nearly stillborn, has a burden for a name: given in gratitude for his survival, ‘Nirmalya’ means ‘offering to the gods’. To his parents ‘it seemed he was delegated a destiny,’ and anything he tries, fails or manages to do is helplessly bathed in that light. At one point Chaudhuri even has the sun rising ‘undisappointingly’, which is a rare blunder, but does make clear where his thoughts are.

In lieu of genius, artistic glory or national fame, the mortal descendants of the Great settle for life, and the novel does too, almost totally avoiding the dramatic in favour of the fairly likely. There isn’t really a plot, and there aren’t very many events. Dreams fade, children grow, slowly there’s more money. There are several mild illnesses and a couple of terminal ones; people move house; Nirmalya thinks about falling in love with a girl called Salma, who visits a few times with her mother, but they suddenly stop coming: ‘Maybe something had happened; maybe nothing had – maybe somebody had moved out; or hadn’t. The Senguptas didn’t know; but they stopped coming.’

In The Immortals the reason for most things happening or not happening is simply time, its shadows lengthening between people. Chaudhuri finds grace and meaning in these shadows, as when the Senguptas decide one Saturday morning to explore Bombay’s newest suburb: ‘The hotel, with its line of palm trees, had risen out of nowhere like something in a European fairy tale; it was surrounded largely by waste land. Mr Sengupta had a lost but cheerfully inquisitive air, like someone who’d been forced to take a long diversion and had stopped accidentally.’ When the view stretches so far that we can see cities growing, the lives led in them tend to dwindle in the shade; we rarely stay in one day or year long enough for a plot to develop.

And time creeps up on us as well: suddenly a character who was young comes over as middle-aged; you look again and years have passed. Chaudhuri doesn’t signpost these things any more than life does. The solitary child is a sullen teen, the hopeful beauty is a dutiful wife, the apartment is nicer, Bombay is bigger. These are the rhythms of life for the comfortable and educated in the age of cities, and dreams of artistic purity and glory recede into the realms of the psychological, the social, the corners of the calendar. Chaudhuri describes the gandharva sammelan, and other such festivals, as providing ‘constant enchantment, the enlargement of life and its prospects for the executives, the businessmen’, and when Shyam lights the lamp before the garlanded portrait of his father, ‘it was a little like lighting a pyre, the pyre he had lit eleven years ago, an act of reverence and expiation. But now, after the banality of the intervening years and of the day itself, emotion had withered and little remained but the public gesture.’

The Immortals could hardly be called an elegy for a golden age of classical purity; it’s more like a portrait of those who write the elegies: comic, affectionate, regretful, but, under the veil of Chaudhuri’s courteous, sympathising style, very drily aware. The system of mentors and disciples – gurus and shisyas – by which the gharana is meant to perpetuate itself looks moth-eaten. Mallika Sengupta’s artistic hopes fail in the hands of a series of inadequate singing tutors, from drunks and flirts and has-beens to the pedantic Ghulam Mohammed, who teaches her nothing but ‘intricate exercises that didn’t add up to anything but which he named, with satisfaction, “designs”’. Shyam is guru to the gifted Nirmalya, but the restless younger man thinks the fire has gone out in his teacher and prefers to study at the feet of Pyarelal, a feckless family hanger-on, with whom he can smoke and have deep discussions. A ready supply of charlatans is to hand in the political sphere: Congressman Hanuman Rao, who wears only white, breezily tells Shyam he is ‘the best singer in the country’ and asks him to be the musical director of a new film starring Rao himself as a peasant revolutionary. This project, Naya Rasta Nayi Asha (‘a new road, new hope’), is derailed by Rao’s embroilment in financial scandal.

Film itself plays a somewhat baleful role in this long sunset of a tradition, notwithstanding the dignified place it holds in Indian culture – which Chaudhuri acknowledges in the phrase the ‘ancient charm of cinema’, perhaps the first time that’s been said anywhere. The tape of Ram Lal’s singing which opens the novel is playing only because his grandson thought ‘it was a cassette of film songs’; Mallika Sengupta grows up in a family prejudiced against the genre. But one doesn’t have to study India to see how the allure of the screen drains the life and talent out of the older arts. Towards the end of the novel the gurus are happy to fill their appointment books with aspiring film singers, hopeful actresses, wannabe pop stars. This begins innocently enough, as a tendency noted in Shyam’s students: ‘Their relationship with music had begun embryonically, in their prehistory as listeners; they’d hummed along in an undertone with the artists they loved best, or loudly, solitarily, to themselves; and then, at some point, they’d asked themselves the unimaginable … “Can’t I be a singer? Can’t it be me?”’ This secret spark of hope has now of course become a consuming flame in the hearts of half the adolescents in the West, so it’s as well to observe how a writer as delicate and judicious as Chaudhuri notes its genesis in a culture more socially sensitive and attuned to its traditions, however faded, a culture where it still seems possible to be shocked.

Then again, the philosophy student Nirmalya, still holding a candle for the ancient values, hardly registers surprise when his friend Pyarelal introduces a new protégée, Madhu, who has made one film, and ‘knows exactly what she wants. She wants to be recognised by people when she walks down the street.’ At the far end of the ludicrous, which is roughly where we enter the citadel of The X Factor and our current reality, is Abhijit, a young singer of ghazals studying with Shyam Lal: ‘What he was after was, simply, melody and success. Someone had told him that his name itself, “Abhijit”, had the right sound and weight, the potential to be put into popular circulation; and now he had a quiet faith in his name, and said it undemonstratively but significantly when someone asked him what it was.’

In place of the ancient and stringent musical wisdom handed down to Shyam from his father, Ram Lal, Shyam’s own son, Sanjay, gets a Yamaha, a ‘slim white synthesiser with an apparently interminable row of white and black keys’ on which he plays all day, filling the apartment to no great end with ‘tinselly cascades of sound’, while his old four-stringed tanpura gathers dust in a corner. Which pretty much brings us up to date, to the triumph of the white and black digital, copying itself perpetually to fill the universe in an instant, over the infinite greys of the analogue, with its dogged and careworn faith in memory, meaning, journey. The rumour of Ram Lal’s greatness will have to stand the test of tape-recording; cassettes are all Nirmalya has left of his guru as he wanders through London, ‘glowering in the Kentucky Fried Chicken, the metallic beat of the music in his ear’. We can all supply that soundtrack.